Behind the scenes: A hotel's bag of pet tricks

Ginger, a teacup Pomeranian and director of pet relations at NewYork's Muse hotel, watches the front desk
Ginger, a teacup Pomeranian and director of pet relations at NewYork's Muse hotel, watches the front desk (Kimpton Hotels & Restaurant)
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By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 15, 2010; 12:53 PM

The director of pet relations at the Muse hotel near Times Square was plum tired after working an extra-long shift one recent Friday. She had staffed the front desk for most of the morning, dressed in a custom-made denim dress in support of breast cancer awareness. Midway through the day, she was pulled from her post to entertain a young, frisky guest from Cape May, N.J. Back in the lobby, she posed for photos and greeted more visitors before taking a break under the counter, napping at the feet of a concierge. There she remained until it was time to go. She exited the hotel in a Juicy Couture carrier, smuggled out like a stolen treasure.

"She is not just for show. She is so much more," concierge Marc Camacho said of Ginger, the 9-year-old pooch who has held the esteemed position for five years. "Her roles are quite numerous. Guests build a rapport with her, and when dogs see her, their tails start wagging."

Ginger - species, canine; breed, teacup Pomeranian; cute quotient, through the roof - was just one of the staff members I recently shadowed at the Muse, peeking behind the curtain of the Kimpton brand's pet-friendly program. My objective: to see how the hotel preps for and tends to four-legged (and sometimes no-legged) guests. My revelation: In many cases, the humans are higher maintenance.

Who lets the dogs in?

More and more hotels these days are letting the dogs in.

In the past five years, says Bringfido.com President Melissa Halliburton, the number of pet-friendly accommodations in the United States has doubled. Her site launched in 2005 with 10,000 properties and now features 20,000 domestic lodgings and nearly 30,000 worldwide. And in a recent study by the American Hotel and Lodging Association, about half of the 8,500 respondents said they allow pets.

"Everyone's in the game," said Sue Smith, president of PetTravel.com, whose listings have mushroomed from about 2,000 in the late 1990s to 30,000 today. "The finer hotels will bend over backwards to cater to pets. The lower-end hotels are more restrictive, especially with larger dogs."

The programs are very individualized, often reflecting the hotel's level of service and star value. Budget properties offer the basics, simply allowing the pooch to crash on the guest room floor. By comparison, upper-shelf lodgings treat the pets as if they were Westminster show dogs, showering them with organic treats, spa services, toys, even a pet psychic at cocktail hour - some gratis, others for a fee. In their customer service textbook, there is no difference between people and pets: Both deserve full attention, though only the latter get scratched behind the ears.

Among pet travel experts, Kimpton's program ranks among the top. First, none of the chain's 50 boutique hotels charges for the animal. By comparison, the AHLA found that up to 54 percent of surveyed properties tack on an extra fee; W Hotels, for example, adds $25 per day, plus a nonrefundable $100 cleaning fee. Kimpton also welcomes pets of all sizes, weights and natures; the Royal Sonesta Hotel New Orleans maxes out at 15 pounds. That means such popular breeds as cocker spaniels, beagles, schnauzers and Scottish terriers must find alternate housing - or go on a severe diet.

To personalize the experience for pet and owner, a handful of Kimpton properties feature a director of pet relations, a position open only to individuals who bark and fetch. The dogs, typically owned by staff members, capture the style and attitude of the hotel. At Hotel Palomar in San Francisco, an energetic retriever named Maverick sits in a vintage wine barrel during the evening social hour and raises funds for an animal-rescue organization.

At the Muse, Ginger is an uptown girl who wears designer duds and lounges atop a paw-print pillow. On her Web page, she lists her hobbies as "shopping, eating, modeling and trying on clothes, posing for photo shoots, and days at the spas." When I showed up to meet Ginger, Lauren Myerson, her owner and a concierge at the hotel, explained her absence: "She heard it was supposed to rain, and she didn't want to have a bad hair day."

Anthropomorphic behavior aside, Ginger does serve an important function: to affirm the pet-friendliness of the hotel.

"For guests who don't have pets, she breaks up the monotony of their trip," said Ericka Nelson, the Muse's general manager. "And for guests who couldn't bring their pets, she reminds them of home." (Also for guests who had to leave their pets behind: Send in a photo and the hotel will frame it and place it by the bed.)


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